When I first started writing about the Bat-Flip Royale, detailing individual’s attempts to gain entry into a (fictional) season-ending bracket of Bat-Flips, the winner of which would be granted the 2014 belt, it was all in fun. Jayson Werth had just punctuated the Marlin’s decision to intentionally walk the batter ahead of him with a grand slam, and his emphatic bat-flip was the icing on the cake. The bat-flip bar was set, and several well-known contenders (offenders?) soon stepped up. Yasiel Puig in fact, took the competition very seriously indeed, adding quantity to his bat-flip quality.
But yesterday, well… to put it lightly, things turned sour, when Manny Machado took the name of my little contest a tad too literally. After his very real effort to start a rumble, Twitter blew up, and calls for him to be suspended for his childish actions abounded. Even as a lover of a good bat-flips, even I must admit this was a step too far. But like a good ol’ train wreck, Machado’s actions can’t be ignored.
Machado’s interesting weekend actually started on Friday night with a seemingly innocuous play. With the option to throw to first to end the third inning, A’s third baseman (and my AL MVP pick so far) Josh Donaldson instead chose to tag Machado, who was literally just in front of him. Unconventional, according to the unwritten rules of baseball, but altogether harmless. The 21-year-old Machado however, thought not, taking exception to what was essentially a love tap, and tumbling to the ground. Whether it stemmed from his recent knee injury, or something else entirely, his reaction was entirely unwarranted, so much so that even the umpires found it amusing. Anyhow, after a round of ‘hold me back’ posturing between the two benches, the game went on with no ejections. Wei-Yin Chen though, plunked Donaldson the next time he came up (Donaldson had earlier hit his 17th homer of the season off of Chen, but dude…). Things were officially on.
On Saturday, Machado teased us with his bat-flip promise. Just look at the frustration in that toss, it’s a thing of beauty. I count a 480° twist on that thing, which in combination with the petulant helmet spike and look of disbelief, really adds to the dramatic effect of it all. His matinee display however, not that we knew then, was just a precursor to the main event that would follow a day later.
Yikes. From whatever angle you look at it, that’s not a pretty sight. Sure Fernando Abad had thrown in on him twice in a long decided game (the Atletics had a 10-0 lead at the time), but Machado had already knocked Oakland’s catcher Derek Norris out of the game with two rather exaggerated backswings. He can’t exactly claim Abad’s retribution was unwarranted. But throwing the bat… jeese Manny. It’s not even Donaldson at third base – it’s Alberto Callaspo! Naturally the benches cleared once again, with Stephen Vogt (who had replaced Norris behind the dish) particularly upset it seemed. This time, crew chief Larry Vanover had the good sense to eject both Abad and Machado, later explaining “It was obvious the pitcher threw at him the second time… then [Machado] threw the bat. That wasn’t accidental. He threw the bat, so two ejections.”
Yeah, no matter what you say Manny, that wasn’t an accident. You are hereby suspended. For the remainder of the season, no theatrical action of yours at the plate will be considered for entry into the Bat-Flip Royale. I suggest you spend the time wisely, getting back into the so far elusive form you displayed during the first half of the 2013 season, where it seemed like every darn plate appearance ended in a double, and doing your best Brooks Robinson impersonation over at third.
And if you really want to get back at Josh Donaldson, taking his crown as the best third baseman in the American League would be a solid, responsible way to go about it.
While streaming my awesome-binge-watch show of choice during some downtime yesterday afternoon (I’m now on to season 3 of The Wire after finishing Breaking Bad a couple of weeks ago), one particular internet pop-up caught my eye. This site wasn’t as sinister as it may at first sound – I only noticed it because it pictured Tony Parker hypothetically rising up for a dunk (I know, never going to happen right…). It was in fact, an advert for the Bovada Sportsbook.
Anyhow, this illicit prompt triggered a memory of a gambling-related post I wrote way back in Spring Training whilst March Madness was taking place, ‘Busted Bracket? Try some baseball betting!’, a piece in which I unfortunately expressed the following sentiment:
I love, love, LOVE me some Rays action this year… I’ll be taking them to win the whole darn thing. With David Price still leading a loaded pitching staff, Wil Myers’ mighty presence in the offense all year, and Joe Maddon’s usual defense/matchup innovation, at +1500 on sportsbook.com, Tampa Bay represent a terrific value to go all the way.
Sound logic at the time, but boy… just yikes. With the benefit of hindsight (well, about a third of a seasons worth of results anyway), it’s clear there are plenty of rough calls in that piece (hey Prince Fielder: HR Champ!), but that one truly sticks out. Rather than live up to the hype that infected not just I, but numerous other baseball prognosticators too, the Rays have been truly abysmal so far in 2014, and are showing little signs of turning things around (they’re currently on a 6-game losing streak). What has changed then, for the Rays to so suddenly fall off the wagon?
Jonah Keri did a great job of breaking the Ray’s slow start back on May 14th in a piece asking pretty much the same question, ‘Why Do the Preseason Darling Rays Suddenly Look Like the Devil Rays?’. At that point, they were 16-23, and only 4½ games out of first place in the AL East. In other words, there was still some hope, and Keri managed to find some silver linings (I will not plumb the pun depths for ‘Rays of hope’). Since then however, things have continued on in the wrong direction; the Rays are now 23-34, and 4 games back of fourth place, let alone the 10.5 games behind Toronto in first. Their chances of reaching the playoffs now sit at a paltry 5.3%.
The rash of pitching injuries that Keri cited, decimating the starting rotation, remain the inherent problem. Matt Moore is of course out for the year after undergoing tommy John surgery, while Jeremy Hellickson is still yet to make his debut after starting the season on the disabled list. Alex Cobb, after missing time with an oblique strain, is back at least, but his helpful return (I liked him as a good dark horse at 33/1 to win the AL Cy Young award), hasn’t been enough to offset the combination of bad luck and below-par performance currently afflicted David Price; the nominal ace of the Rays staff has a 4.27 ERA after 12 starts, but a 3.24 FIP.
Price hasn’t been alone in his struggles – young starters Chris Archer (4.00 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) and Jake Odorizzi (5.13 and 1.54 in the same categories) have been remained healthy, but have failed to live up to expectations. Combined with their relative ineffectiveness (Tampa as a whole has only 19 quality starts this year, last in the majors), throw in the lack of stamina of Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos, the other two pitchers to have started for the Rays this year, and the bullpen has been taxed – hard. Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta, previously excellent high-leverage relievers, both sport horrendous numbers. Josh Lueke remains horrid, on and off the field. Only Jake McGee has really excelled in the usual Tampa Bay reliever fashion.
But the Rays haven’t been much better on offense either. After securing AL ROY honors last year, Wil Myers was expected to play Robin to Evan Longoria‘s Batman. Instead, Myers has experienced a brutal sophomore slump (not in his bat-flip game mind you), and was hitting only just .227 with a .666 OPS before he was placed on the DL with an ailing wrist over the weekend. Longoria meanwhile, with 5 home runs and a 98 OPS+ mark, has been anonymous as one of the Joker’s masked henchmen, and unable to buoy an offense anchored by the worst catching production in the majors thus far; for all of Jose Molina‘s and Ryan Hanigan‘s framing abilities, a combined .182/.254/.257 triple slash line with terrible base running should be unacceptable.
As Keri pointed out too, there’s not much help on the way; in addition to drafting terribly over the past few years, and graduating a lot of the prospects who did in fact make it (Price, Desmond Jennings, Moore, Myers kind of etc.), the Rays are tapped out financially. Team GM Andrew Friedman acknowledged as such after a winter in which management gave out multiyear deals to the aforementioned Balfour, Hanigan, and James Loney, and then made an expensive mistake on Heath Bell; at over $80 million, this years payroll is a franchise record, and unsustainable in the long-term.
With Toronto streaking away, Baltimore’s free-agency commitment to winning now, Boston turning it around, and New York looking capable of an above .500 season, contending for the AL East in 2014 is already looking out of the question for the Rays. Besot by injuries, bad luck, and bad form, the trades might soon be coming in order to address that depleted talent pool and over-extended budget, David Price being the obvious candidate to be moved. The rebuild could be well and truly on by October, when by my prediction, they should have been playing for a championship.
The Rays are now +3500 to win it all. And it’s no longer even a decent value play.
I am a daily listener to ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast. Along with the B.S. Report, Freakonomics Radio, and good ol’ Kanye West, it’s my regular soundtrack at the rec center while I rehab my knee. Too much information about me, you’re not here for that – anyhow, the point is, that a standard segment of the FFB podcast involves Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft playing what’s fondly known as America’s Favorite Game – ‘Bona fide, or Bonifacio’ (Olé!). Though it’s been a tad confused this season by a change in show hosts, the premise is basically thus; Player X gets off to an unexpectedly hot start. If Eric and Tristan believe his performance is legitimate, i.e. something has clicked, he’s going to enjoy a breakout, this is not just a fluke – Player X is bona fide. If they believe his play will regress on the other hand, or just generally don’t believe for some other reason (injury, opportunity etc.) – Player X is Bonifacio*.
Which (finally) brings me to Melky Cabrera.
Heading into 2014, there was little certainty surrounding Cabrera. After being a .280/.360/.391 hitter, and 2.7 WAR player in his first full season as a Yankee in 2006, he mixed underwhelming performance with injury for the next four years (3 of which he spent in New York, the other as an Atlanta Brave), accumulating just 1.8 WAR along the way. Suddenly though, in 2011 the Melk-man was good again; with the Kansas City Royals that year, the Dominican Republic native appeared in 155 games and hit .305/.339/.470, good for a 4.1 WAR value. Things would start even better the next year, this time in San Francisco. Cabrera would rake .346/.390/.516, win the All-Star MVP trophy, and garner 4.6 WAR before his season was abruptly ended after just 113 games. The reason for his shortened campaign – a 50-game PED suspension (and hilariously awful attempt to mask it with a fake website).
Left off of the Giants’ 2012 World Series team, Melky was controversially awarded a two-year, $16 million contract by a Toronto Blue Jays organization desperately hoping to rebound from a woeful 73-89 season (he signed just a week after the Jays pulled off the blockbuster trade with Miami that netted them Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and the then-valuable Josh Johnson). A putrid season followed, during which Cabrera played just 88 games, hit .279/.322/.360, and was a disaster defensively. His struggles were further amplified by a raging narrative – off the juice, Melky was nothing but an average ballplayer.
Subsequently, little was expected of 29-year-old both in terms of on-field and fantasy value this year; even with a spot in the Jays outfield alongside Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista pretty much guaranteed, as put by Chris Cwik of Fangraphs way back in February, “Unless Cabrera gets back to hitting for ridiculous averages, or rediscovers his power, he’s nothing more than a late-round flyer at a deep position.” Well, as it turns out, the leftie so far has hit for ridiculous average, .338 in fact. He has rediscovered his power, having hit 6 home runs already. That “late-round flyer at a deep position” is currently the 22nd ranked player in all of fantasy baseball per ESPN’s Player Rater. His 7.98 rating makes him the 8th best outfielder, and is tied with Mike Trout. By all measures, he’s been excellent for the Jays thus far, and a big part of the team’s early offensive success.**
Given his history however – the fluctuating performance, the drug suspension, the injuries – in combination with the small sample size, it seems more than fair to ask the question – is Melky Cabrera bona fide, or Bonifacio?
I’m inclined to lean bona fide, and mainly because of one factor: his health. Lost in the gruesome horror show that was the Blue Jays’ injury-marred 2014, Cabrera had perhaps the most serious ailment of all. As first written by Mike Petriello, “In Cabrera’s case, he didn’t injure a shoulder or a knee or a foot. He had a tumor in his back, and as unbelievable as it seems to say, somehow that seemed to fly completely under the radar.” Doctors legitimately wondered how he had been able to play at all, let alone appear in 88 games, and the subsequent coverage of his recovery illustrated just how affected Cabrera was. Robbed of all power in his lower half, Cabrera was not only a stiff in the field, but at the dish. Just look how painfully inflexible Cabrera looks batting here:
Ouch. Now compare that to a cut from earlier this season:
That’s Masahiro Tanaka pitching there, and that’s also a home run.
The difference in Cabrera’s approach when healthy is remarkable then. Able to turn on and drive the ball once again, it looks like he’s back in his 2011/2 form – and at just 29, is feasibly at his peak. Now, the power will almost certainly regress – his current HR/FB rate of 17.6 % is far above his career average of 7.3% – but thanks to his quick start, he’ll likely end up with around 16 (his previous career high is 18). His ability to hit for average however, isn’t going anywhere. Though he has a BABIP of .372, Cabrera is roping line drives 24.4 % of the time he puts the ball in play, and popping up just 5.9% of the time – good signs that he’ll be able to maintain such a high BABIP. Additionally, he’s done it before, back in 2012, when he had a .379 mark. Even with such an abbreviated season, that year Melky finished 15th among all outfielders on the Player Rater.
All of which is to say, that yes, you should believe. With an average draft position of 220.5, Cabrera looks set to become one of the biggest steals of the 2014 fantasy season, and will also present a conundrum for the Jays this offseason. In the last year of that original two-year pact, Cabrera’s current output is steadily increasing his winter price tag. He’ll be 30 then, and as detailed, not without baggage. His 2014 though, will have been bona fide.
* eponymously named after Emilio Bonifacio years ago after previous hosts Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz first debated the legitimacy of his April showing.
** Though the Jays stand fourth in the AL East at 16-17, they are only 1.5 games back for the division lead, and are the only team with a positive run differential (+4).
As the saying goes, ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’ So when a rainout last Friday conveniently enabled the Blue Jays to shuffle their Triple-A affiliate Buffalo’s rotation, and align the starts of prized prospect Marcus Stroman with the struggling Dustin McGowan, the rumors that an imminent rotation change north of the border started like wildfire. With McGowan apparently lacking the stamina to pitch deep into games (he recently admitted to feeling fatigued around the 60-pitch mark), Stroman dominating Triple-A competition, and the Blue Jays desperately needing strong contributions from their starters in the loaded AL East, the move looked locked in; yesterday’s aligned outings, Stroman vs Louisville, and McGowan at Kansas City, should have been the duo’s last shared night of pitching (starting-wise, anyway – out of options, McGowan would likely end up in the bullpen).
The 6-foot-3 McGowan, who has lost years to injury, tried his best to delay the inevitable yielding of his rotation spot to Baseball Prospectus’ no. 27 ranked prospect. Against the same Royals offense that last week made Corey Kluber look like Clayton Kershaw, McGowan turned in his finest outing of the season, allowing only three hits and two earned runs in six innings of work, dropping his ERA from 6.88 to 5.87 in the process. Unfortunately for the 32-year-old, Stroman was also at his best – more on that later – seemingly intent on proving to Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous why it should be him taking to the bump to face the Pirates on May 4th.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) April 30, 2014
At just 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Stroman might not immediately look like one of Major League Baseball’s best pitching prospects, but the soon to be 23-year-old’s filthy stuff (it’s his birthday on Thursday) belies his less than imposing stature. Since being taken with the 22nd overall pick by the Jays back in 2012*, the native of Long Island, N.Y., aside from a short PED suspension in 2012 (deemed a genuine mistake from an earnest kid – he paid off his mom’s mortgage with part of his $1.8 million signing bonus), has rolled his way through the minors. After an impressive, albeit abbreviated, 2012, he was excellent for Double-A New Hampshire in 2013, recording strikeout and walk rates of 28.1% and 5.9% respectively, in 111.2 innings of 3.30 ERA ball. So far in 2014, he’s been even better; heading into Tuesday’s match-up with Louisville, in his first taste of Triple-A competition, Stroman had a 2.18 ERA with 26 strikeouts and six walks over 20 2/3 innings.
I hear you though – ‘Get to the good bit – what about that ‘filthy’ stuff you mentioned?’ Well, according Jason Parks’ Top 101 Prospects write up for Baseball Prospectus:
The diminutive former Duke Blue Devil and USA Baseball standout showcases a dynamic arsenal and, with a plus-plus fastball and slider, one of the most explosive one-two combinations in the minors. The heater is a low to mid-90s offering with late giddy up, while the slider comes with sharp wipeout action. He shows excellent feel for the slide piece, with an additional ability to tighten it up to cutter depth with upper-80s to low-90s velocity. He’ll also flash a plus changeup with abrupt late fade and good trajectory deception.
Quite simply, Stroman has elite promise in the strikeout-ability category**. Turns out he can field his position pretty handily too:
That video was filmed during Stroman’s outing for Buffalo against Louisville yesterday, and may have been the fourth or fifth most impressive thing he did all night. The highly touted right-hander didn’t allow a hit in six shutout innings against the Bats, striking out 10 and issuing just one walk before being lifted after 80 pitches (56 of them for strikes).
With a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings, it’s taken all of five starts for Stroman to make it quite obvious that Triple-A is of no obstacle to him, and he’s done seasoning in the minors. Assistant GM Tony LaCava recently stated that Stroman’s time is ‘coming soon’ – that time should be now. With McGowan not the only Blue Jays starter struggling (hey there Brandon Morrow!), and the team badly in need of a power arm atop the rotation (however good they are, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey aren’t exactly lighting up radar guns), there’s an obvious need for the organizations no. 2 prospect too. Toronto management should not let themselves be confused by Kansas City’s terrible offense.
* Washington had actually drafted him straight out of Patchogue-Medford HS back in 2009 in the 18th round, only for Stroman to go to Duke University instead.
** Considering their shared diminutive profiles, the subsequent concerns over his pitch trajectory, and the incredible strikeout potential they both possess, I can’t keep myself from drawing comparisons between Stroman and Yordano Ventura – who is working out pretty well in Kansas City by the way.
You certainly can’t blame John Farrell for his post game comment “it’s not been a good night.” He’d just seen his Boston Red Sox get pasted by their AL East arch-rival – the New York Yankees – in an ugly affair that took a marathon 3 hours, 51 minutes to complete. His much-vaunted lineup had seemed disinclined to swing at any of C.C. Sabathia‘s sluggish offerings (seriously, someone get C.C. a feed bag of Captain Crunch quick – he looks horrible right now), Jacoby Ellsbury was lacing hits seemingly every time he came up to bat, and Boston’s starting pitcher Felix Doubront was abysmal; it most certainly was not a good night – at least from his perspective.
But for the objective fan of baseball (like me), woah boy. Never before had the end of a 14-5 game been so exciting, completely because Farrell had actually prefaced his lament with a phrase that is like catnip to an impartial observer: “Any time you end up with a position player on the mound (it’s not been a good night).” Position player + pitching = high comedy. In yesterdays instance, having already used three relievers to combine for 5 1/3 innings, first baseman/occasional outfielder/pinch-hitter/NON-PITCHER Mike Carp was asked by Boston to stretch his valuable versatility even further, and climb the mound for the top of the ninth. And thus, as is always the case whenever a position player is summoned to the bump, an otherwise-boring game suddenly became must-watch (mlb.)TV.
It all started so promisingly – after being cheered voraciously to the mound by the remaining Fenway faithful, and walking Mark Teixeira, Carp (somewhat hilariously) induced a 6-5-3 double play from the second batter of the inning, Brian McCann; Carp would later acknowledge “That was cool right off the bat.” Unfortunately (for him and the Sox at least), that would be the highlight of the inning, because with two outs and none on, the wheels officially came off – and the exceptional performance began.
Mixing a genuine 66 to 70 mph knuckleball with what appeared to be both a four-seam and two-seam ‘heater’ (offerings that apparently ranged from 79 to 84 mph), Carp would walk the next four hitters – pushing across a run – before getting pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson to pop-up to David Ross for the final out. Though he didn’t cede a hit, Carp would face seven batters, and throw a total of 38 pitches – only 15 of which were strikes*! The resultant plot graph of his pitch location was a masterpiece in horrible command/beautiful entertainment:
More than simply that analytical equivalent to the Mona Lisa though, Carp’s outing provided additional entertainment value thanks to the trolling tweets, inspired trivia questions, and exquisitely tongue-in-cheek scouting analysis that followed. Furthermore, though Carp was quoted post-game in saying “Obviously, I’m not taking it too seriously out there,” the shaking off of his catcher at least once and look in at the umpire when he disagreed with a non-strike call suggested otherwise – only adding to the mirth-factor of his pitching debut.
Now this is not intended to bash Carp – he actually looked incredibly comfortable in an otherwise tough spot, and admirably saved an already-taxed Boston bullpen from further embarrassment – but his appearance last night was brilliant in its exceptionally farcical nature. The Yankees looked genuinely unwilling to swing in fear of inciting a brawl (or just couldn’t reach that far outside the zone). It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a position player seen on a mound this year either, nor will it likely be the last, but Mike Carp’s outing may well be the funniest come seasons end.
Only if you’re not John Farrell that is.
After only going 85-77 in 2013 (dramatically outperforming their pythagorean win/loss expectation of 79-83 in the process) despite boasting the ML’s leading payroll ($228.1M), God only knows the New York Yankees needed to shake things up this offseason if they were to return to their accustomed winning ways. Out the door went their top position player by WARP from the year prior, Robinson Cano taking his non-hustling talents to the Pacific Northwest. Unobstructed by the Yankees, so too did the powerful (although free-swinging) center fielder Curtis Granderson leave to earn his fortunes elsewhere – in his case, just across town with the Mets. And of course, the Yanks’ top reliever, and the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, departed too – albeit through the planned retirement route rather than New York’s apathy. In rapid fashion, help arrived via free agency; Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and prize capture Masahiro Tanaka were all brought in by GM Brian Cashman for the princely sum of a combined $438M, while Hiroki Kuroda and Brett Gardner were both extended in the hope of further bolstering a squad also returning from injury the big name likes of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira.
And yet all their offseason activity may be for nought – in the ultra-competitive AL East, such spending may in fact merely have the effect of a plaster on a broken leg; the infield is still a mess. Their outfield is made of glass. C.C. Sabathia, despite his weight loss, looks likely to be the next Roy Halladay-like/Johan Santana-esque breakdown candidate. Alex Rodriguez’s half-man, half-centaur shadow remains looming over the team. The farm system is as unyielding as a pumpkin patch set up in the Sahara. And the team is ancient – all of their projected starting position players are over 30 years old, and the average age of those players is 33.8. The Yankees are going to need help in every area they can find it if they’re to seriously contend once again in 2014. Michael Pineda might just be one forgotten source.
When we last saw Pineda, it was September 2011, and he was in a Mariners uniform. As a 22-year-old, he hadn’t looked out of place aside Felix Hernandez at the top of Seattle’s rotation, posting a 3.74 ERA (3.42 FIP and 3.53 xFIP) over 28 starts after breaking Spring Training with the team, on his way becoming the first rookie to ever throw at least 150 innings with at least a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine. Armed with a 94-97mph heater and a slider off of which opponents hit only .175/.220/.294 (Pineda threw it 857 times), the imposing righty’s strikeout percentage of 24.9 was 6th best among 94 qualifiers, landing him right between Justin Verlander and the version of Tim Lincecum who won two Cy Young awards. He was so good at such a young age, that when New York landed him in exchange for the no. 4 prospect in baseball at the time, catcher Jesus Montero, as well as the RHP prospect Hector Noesi, the industry consensus was that they had got themselves a steal – despite the high price of losing Montero.
But, as no one at the time predicted, so far the swap has been the ultimate lose/lose trade. Montero is now an overweight first baseman in Triple-A Tacoma after bombing out in Seattle, and Noesi has been sub-replacement level; the pair have thus far combined for a total of -1.4 fWAR, 2 last place finishes in the AL West, and about 40 extra pounds this spring. Pineda on the other hand, showed up overweight to his first Yankees Spring Training back in 2012, and promptly tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder; two years later, he’s still yet to throw a pitch in the majors. Literally nothing good has come from the trade, apart from, as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their annual, “the 40-man roster spot the Yankees freed up”. With Montero equally a non-factor in Seattle, Yankees fans couldn’t even direct their trade ire at the Dominican Republic native; the once much-hyped Pineda thus has become quite the forgotten man in New York, as other stories (A-Rod, the 189 plan, retirements), have overwhelmed his absence.
That might soon change. Though he returned to minor league action late last summer (in his 40.2 innings he posted a 9.07 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9), an eye-opening Spring Training has the 6’7 Pineda in line to claim New York’s open fifth rotation spot, and thus back under the spotlight. In beating out David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Adam Warren for the opportunity, the now 25-year-old Pineda has looked every bit the same as his 22-year-old self; he still has the same mechanics, the late break on the slider, and sub-3 BB/9 control, while similarly lacking the quality third pitch to be truly dominant. The man himself has said so much: “I’m the same Michael Pineda.” His fastball velocity has been somewhat down so far, sitting at around 92mph in Spring Training, though it’s not uncommon for pitchers to ramp it up once regular season games begin. The Bronx Bombers best hope he does so, as Pineda figures to be a large factor in their 2014 success.
Though the Yankees’ starting staff looks the strongest element of the team on paper, in reality questions remain at every spot; can C.C. still do it? Will Father Time finally catch up with Hiroki Kuroda? Is Tanaka the next Yu Darvish, or more like Daisuke Matzusaka? Was Ivan Nova’s second-half performance for real? The youthful impetus a fully-recovered Pineda would provide New York would be immense in terms of shoring up some of the squad’s deficiencies, and a pleasant surprise to those who had forgotten him.
A good performance from the ace up their sleeve, after two and a half years of waiting, could be the difference-maker for the Yankees.
As a recent inductee into the much-fêted Torn ACL Club, (there’s only one membership requirement, but I wouldn’t recommend it), a subdivision of the Busted Knee Alliance, I’ve a fairly new appreciation of professional sportsmen who come back from serious injury. Mine was fairly innocuous all things considered, and yet still, after one day of rehab work, already my quadriceps have fallen out with me. So whether it be Yasmani Grandal, Tyler Pastornicky, Scott Sizemore, Corey Hart, or even (hopefully) Manny Machado – really anyone who has ever had knee problems – I’m rooting for you to succeed this year regardless of the laundry you wear. Hence why I’ll be crossing my fingers in sincere hope that Grady Sizemore’s health permits him to stick in the Boston outfield mix for the whole of 2014.
I’ve only ever known Sizemore as an injury prone player; that’s how long his various afflictions have plagued him. After all, he’s undergone seven surgeries since 2009 alone, including (amongst treatment for his left elbow, a pair of sports hernias, and in 2012, a herniated disk in his lower back) microfracture procedures on both knees. When he last appeared in a regular season game on Sept. 22, 2011, an 11-2 win for his Cleveland Indians over the Chicago White Sox, Sizemore was apparently a shell of his former self – not that I noticed. My newly-acquired baseball fandom knew nothing of his time as perhaps the most dynamic player in the game.
I’ll leave it to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs to point out just how good Sizemore was back in the days in which he once played 382 straight games:
Between 2005 and 2008 — Sizemore’s age-22 and age-25 seasons — only Ichiro Suzuki played in more games, and only Ichiro and Jose Reyes batted more times. Between 22 and 25, Sizemore was worth 26.8 WAR, 20th in baseball history. Names around him include Evan Longoria, Barry Bonds, David Wright and Andruw Jones. He was worth 5.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances, 58th in baseball history. Names around him include Hank Greenberg, Hanley Ramirez, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson.
By the end of his age 25 season in 2008, Sizemore already had 111 home runs, 117 stolen bases, three All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger award and three top-12 MVP finishes… After 2008, Sizemore owned a career .279/.370/.491 over 3,109 plate appearances. His 127 OPS+ made him just the ninth center fielder since integration to post a 120 OPS+ or better in at least 2,500 plate appearances by age 25.
By all measures – entertaining video highlights included – Sizemore was one of the five best position players in baseball, at just the tender age of 25 looking set to be an MVP candidate for years to come. And yet if it weren’t for his Spring Training play for the Boston Red Sox over the last couple of weeks, I’d never have known.
While my Reds were also supposedly in on him, the now 31-year-old Sizemore was lured to the reigning champion Red Sox by a one year, $750,000 major league deal (plus incentives that can take him past $6 million). Even with Jacoby Ellsbury departed to the Yankees, it seemed an odd decision, Boston not only having Jackie Bradley Jr. on the way up to play center, but a gluttony of players for every other outfield spot too – a stellar group consisting of Shane Victorino, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes. A lottery ticket without a clear opportunity to begin with, the underwhelming performance of Bradley (batting .189 thus far) in combination with flashes of the old brilliance – including two spectacular grabs made in the field against the Cardinals on Monday – have not only assured Sizemore sticks with the club, but may well have pushed him up through the once-presumed clogged depth chart into a starting role.
Even if he will forever struggle to remain fully healthy, Boston, with their considerable outfield depth, will give him the best opportunity to showcase the offensive skills that once put him in such elite company. As evidenced this Spring, when healthy, Sizemore can still contribute, and could potentially be another monumental bargain for the Sox. Much like former Indians teammate CC Sabathia, I’ll be pulling for Grady Sizemore all year regardless of his performance. Just getting back out onto the field healthy is achievement enough.